No Longer on Defense: Building the Offensive Destroyer Squadron

By Jason Lancaster


The modern destroyer squadron (DESRON) is unable to attack effectively first. It is primarily a defensive organization designed to protect the carrier from surface threats and submarines. There are many trite maxims like a good defense is a strong offense, but without a greater number of improved offensive weapons, there will not be an ability to improve the offensive capability of the DESRON or deploy offensive SAGs.

There has been some movement to create offensive SAGs to reach out and attack the enemy first, but these concepts have several issues. The Carrier Strike Group does not have the number of assets needed to protect the carrier in wartime, where providing for the defense of capital ships may prove too powerful of a demand signal to allow a meaningful number of surface ships to go on the offensive. Not only are there too few ships, but those ships need better offensive weapons to successfully conduct offensive missions. It is easier to kill the archer than the arrow, but the enemy archer in the form of Russian and Chinese assets heavily outranges the U.S. surface fleet. Addressing these shortfalls requires longer-range anti-ship weapons, a medium-range ASW aircraft, and better manning for DESRONs.

The State of Anti-Surface Warfare

The Soviet Union lacked significant carrier-based aviation and had to compensate by heavily investing in the development of powerful and long-range anti-ship missiles that were compatible with a wide variety of naval force structure. The theory was to use heavy bombers, submarines, and surface forces to launch large salvos of these long-range missiles to overwhelm U.S. carrier battle groups. The substantial lead the Soviet Union gained in anti-ship missile technology persists to this day.

Russia still has multiple surface-launched anti-ship missiles, many of which are supersonic and long-range. The most modern is the Zircon hypersonic missile deployed aboard Grigorovich-class corvettes. Newer Russian ships boasting the Kalibr system can also deploy the SS-N-26 Strobile or SS-N-27 Sizzler supersonic anti-ship missiles, while the older Soviet-era ships deploy the SS-N-22 Sunburn, SS-N-12 Sandbox, SS-N-19 Shipwreck, SS-N-26 Yakhont anti-ship missiles. The Russian Navy also has subsonic missiles like the SS-N-25 Switchblade and the older SS-N-2 Styx, as well as an anti-submarine rocket, the SS-N-14 SILEX, that also has an anti-surface mode. Russia sold many of these missile types to China, who also fields a wide variety of anti-ship missiles, including land-based ballistic missiles such as the DF-21 and DF-26.

A warship of Russia’s Pacific Fleet fires a Moskit (SS-N-22 Sunburn) anti-ship cruise missile at a mock enemy sea target in the Sea of Japan, in this still image taken from video released March 28, 2023. (Via Russian Defence Ministry)

The variety of Russia’s and China’s different missiles complicates U.S. Navy options for hardkill and softkill countermeasures. Different missiles have different terminal maneuvers and signatures designed to confuse and challenge terminal air defenses. Softkill options rely on decoys and electronic warfare to distract, jam, or seduce enemy missiles away from the targeted ship, but increasingly capable multimodal seekers are diminishing the utility of softkill countermeasures. This wide array of advanced anti-ship missile capability means that U.S. ships must devote more magazine space to defensive countermeasures, reducing the amount of space available for offensive weapons. In order to change the dynamic, the U.S. needs to rapidly develop and field a greater multitude of offensive surface and air-launched anti-ship missiles to better threaten rival naval forces and force them onto the defensive.

As an ensign, I noticed the discrepancy between our Harpoons and the plethora of missiles Russia and China had developed. I asked my executive officer about this state of affairs, and he said the U.S. Navy relied on carrier-based naval aviation to strike enemy ships, and our ships protected the carrier and did not need large numbers of surface-to-surface missiles to attack the enemy. This doctrine may have been slightly more appropriate for a time when Cold War-era carrier aviation had much longer reach than it has today and when opposing surface warships had far less capable air defenses. But the balance of advantage has become much different.

Unfortunately, naval aviation’s primary anti-surface weapons are the Harpoon and the JDAM. U.S. naval aviation has predominantly relied on JDAMs for their strike missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the small 15NM range easily allows modern warship air defenses to threaten archers before they can fire arrows. Naval aviation is replacing the Harpoon with the Joint Stand Off Weapon (JSOW) glide bomb with an advertised 62NM range and the Long-Range Anti-Surface missile (LRASM) which has an estimated range of 300NM, but neither is in the fleet in large numbers, and it will take years to build enough inventory.1,2 Naval aviation cannot be reasonably expected to shoulder all of the burden of employing the U.S. Navy’s anti-ship missile firepower, and surface warships will be needed to alleviate this burden and open new options for maritime strike.

Air Test and Evaluation (VX) 23’s Salty Dog 122 releases a Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) during a flight test. (U.S. Navy photo by Erik Hildebrandt)

The U.S. is only recently starting to field replacements for the ship-launched Harpoon missile. The Naval Strike Missile is a modern sea skimmer and its 100NM range is slightly better than Harpoon, but still far less than many adversary weapons and it is not compatible with vertical launch cells.3 The Navy is also fielding the SM-6 and Maritime Strike Tomahawk for anti-surface work, but the Navy possesses a limited inventory. Both missiles have alternative missions in air defense and land-attack strike respectively that might take priority over anti-surface missions. But with the end of the War on Terror’s major campaigns, the U.S. Navy should be able to reduce the number of Tomahawk missiles carried for land-attack missions and increase the amount of magazine depth devoted to maritime strike.

Anti-Submarine Warfare

U.S. forces are heavily challenged by enemy submarines. China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran have 208 submarines combined of various age and capability.4 Chinese and Russian submarines field advanced anti-ship missiles with ranges in excess of 200NM. The modern carrier strike group will struggle to defend itself against this threat, especially when submarines can slip past screening warships and aircraft. The U.S. Navy needs a new medium-range aircraft organic to the strike group to assist in ASW defense. Surface ships also need a longer-range anti-ship rocket (ASROC) to engage detected submarines much farther from the strike group or SAG. This combination of capability will extend the scope of ASW defense and better allow surface warships to go on the offensive in other missions.

During the Cold War, the S-3 Viking was tailor-made to support ASW and ASuW missions. These aircraft had the endurance to travel several hundred miles from the strike group and remain on station while hunting submarines for hours. But the S-3 Viking was retired without a similar platform to replace it, and now the only ASW aircraft organic in the carrier strike group is the much shorter-ranged MH-60R helicopter. They are designed for terminal classification and engagement, not for wide-area searches that are critical to early warning in ASW.

The Navy needs to develop aircraft to fill the roles once provided by the S-3 Viking, but it does not need to develop a new airframe and new sensors. The Navy already has highly capable sensors in the P-8 and MH-60R. Fielding those sensors in an airframe like the MV-22 Osprey, or using an unmanned aircraft like the MQ-9B Sea Guardian, would greatly extend the classification, identification, and engagement area (CIEA) for ASW. An MV-22 variant could utilize sensors from the P-8A and the MH-60R, provided it can handle the added electrical load. A vertically-launched medium range ASW aircraft could also be sold to the wide variety of allies and partners that operate flattops. Other countries such as the Philippines might be able to use a medium-range ASW aircraft and launch it from austere airfields to control ASW chokepoints.

The MQ-9B Sea Guardian is an unmanned aircraft that has operated during exercises. It is capable of conducting ASW within a 1,200-mile mission radius with significant on-station time. It is capable of carrying 120 sonobuoys in two sizes.5 Recent tests have proven that the MQ-9 is capable of short takeoffs and landings, which would enable the ARG-MEU to deploy with significant anti-submarine capacity.

With the growing numbers and capabilities of rival submarines, it is time to invest in improving ASW capabilities, and specifically with an eye toward extending the possible ranges of detection and engagement. Longer-range ASW weapons for surface ships and new ASW aircraft will drastically improve the Navy’s defensive capability against hostile submarines.

DESRON Manning

The modern destroyer squadron is configured to operate as an administrative and tactical command and is supposed to be manned as such. Yet when one looks at DESRON manning and who is standing watch, there are significant shortfalls. I once trained a Boatswains Mate Chief Petty Officer to stand watch, and we deployed at only 50 percent manning, which subsequently increased to 85 percent with plus-ups from various Third Class Petty Officer Operations Specialists to fill the voids of First Class Petty Officer Operations Specialists. This lack of experience reduced the ability of the staff to properly execute mission command-type orders, among other challenges.

A deploying DESRON staff needs to be allowed to focus on naval warfare. The staff needs to turn all of its maintenance duties over to Surface Forces or a Maintenance Surface Squadron that then allows deploying DESRONs to focus on preparing for naval warfare. The announcement of new Surface Group (SURFGRU) readiness squadrons is a step in the right direction, but it will take time for the DESRONs to offload habitual responsibilities to focus more on warfighting. Typically during the maintenance and basic phases, the DESRON staff focuses on the ships and not enough on themselves. There are few opportunities for the DESRON can conduct tactical training, let alone conduct enough of it. When I was stationed in Norfolk, we went to Tactical Training Group Atlantic only several times, and only managed to train on our CVN once prior to SWATT. This greatly impaired the development of the DESRON’s tactical readiness and our understanding of the DESRON’s warfighting functions.

The DESRON needs a dedicated basic phase to develop its abilities to wage offensive and defensive war at sea, and to build its tactical warfighting skill and know-how. A deploying DESRON could be called a Tactical Squadron to differentiate itself from other DESRONs. The proposed TACRON manning chart below is designed to build a naval staff capable of sustained planning and operations, with a focus on putting warfighting first and foremost.

A manning construct for a tactical destroyer squadron (TACRON). (Author graphic)


For generations, the primarily defensive roles of the surface fleet and the lack of long-range anti-ship weapons have sapped the offensive spirit of the Surface Warfare Officer community. As ships begin to utilize the SM-6 in anti-surface mode, an offensive spirit is beginning to build. The surface warfare enterprise needs to continue to invest in longer-range weapons to put the enemy on the defensive and to put our own ships on offense. SM-6, LRASM, and the Maritime Tomahawk, combined with new over-the-horizon targeting techniques, have placed the Navy on the right track for ASuW. However, the lack of a medium-range ASW aircraft still limits the ability of flattops to defend themselves, and threatens to pull surface warships away from their growing offensive potential and into the resource-intensive ASW fight. Yet new capability will not be enough to fill these gaps. Surface warfare officers – from watchstanders to operational commanders and especially DESRON staffers – will all need to rediscover the offensive spirit that is fundamental to striking effectively first.

LCDR Jason Lancaster has served as Operations Officer at DESRON 26 during their 2020 deployment workups and a portion of deployment. He has also served aboard all manner of surface ships including USS STOUT (DDG 55), USS NEW YORK (LPD 21), USS TORTUGA (LSD 46), and USS AMERICA (LHA 6). Ashore he has served in the N5 at Commander, Naval Forces Korea and OPNAV N5. These views are presented in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the official views of any U.S. government department or agency.


1. “AGM-154 Joint Standoff Weapon (JSOW),” U.S. Navy Fact File, September 27, 2021,

2. David B. Larter, “Pentagon’s weapons tester gives update on Navy’s new long-range anti-ship missile,” Defense News, January 21, 2021,

3. “Naval Strike Missile,” Kongsberg,

4. “Submarines by Country,” World Population Review,

5. “MQ-9B SeaGuardian,” General Atomics,

Featured Image: June 2016 – Arleigh Burke class guided-missile destroyer USS Spruance (DDG 111) (front) steams in formation with USS Decatur (DDG 73) and USS Momsen (DDG 92). (U.S. Navy photo by MC2(SW) Will Gaskill)

8 thoughts on “No Longer on Defense: Building the Offensive Destroyer Squadron”

  1. I agree on all points, but have two glaring concerns.
    1) Your proposed org chart is top-heavy in the enlisted area. While I understand the idea of trying to draw from the most experienced and capable sailors, I do believe a few of those OS1 billets could be better filled by second tour OS2s.
    2 ) The second concern is my belief DESRONS should be grouped together operationally, not cycled through maintenance piecemeal.

    1. Good OS2s and STG2s would work fine.

      I went to my desron job from one of its ships. So i agree it would be nice to keep them together to build teamwork at the squadron level to compliment the teamwork inside the ship.

  2. LCDR Lancaster has good points, but his second paragraph reveals the grim reality. The Navy’s surface combatants will be tied to the carriers. Thus the missing link is maneuver., and therefore DMO becomes only a matter of VLS cell management. Perhaps the new Constellation Class will free up hulls for independent surface operations, but they will take a long time to hit the fleet in numbers. Meanwhile, almost regardless of VLS cell loadout the DESRONs will be tied to CV defense.

  3. Great piece. Wasted billions on LCS and Zummwalts. Not enough destroyers to both protect Carriers and oilers and operate independently. What is the purpose of the new frigates? Offense, defense? Smaller version of Burkes? IMO pick a strategy and spend towards that. Surface fleet protect our strike assets, carriers. Give carrier aviation the weapons to strike naval targets. We don’t have the money and shipbuilding capability to do it all. More subs and load them with strike missiles. Enemy Anti ship missiles cannot hit what they cannot see. Plus subs hunt subs

  4. Somewhere the Surface Navy forgot that two of its missions were to sink ships and submarines. Naval aviation sort of set it to the side too.
    I don’t think the Submarines ever forgot it, but even they saw the money shower was for land attack and added Tomahawk VLS tubes to what they could.
    Neither the Maritime Strike Tomahawk nor the Harpoon is supersonic – which makes them less than difficult targets for CIWS fire.
    From what I’ve heard, the Mk. 50 isn’t that great (or long ranged) of a torpedo – and it’s almost the only thing the surface and aviation assets have to kill subs with.
    It just seems like maritime strike is not in very good shape.

  5. We used to have readiness and tactical DESRONs in the Navy of the late-70’s into the mid-90’s. We operated (TAC and readiness) as LCDR Lancaster has laid out. Only we had nowhere near that kind of staffing. Makes sense were generally under staffed both TACTICAL and AFLOAT. But a great and proven concept that needs to be reintroduced.

  6. I was a Radarman/OS on two missile destroyers back in the early 70’s. I steamed in “many” carrier battle groups from the Jordanian Civil War confrontation in the Easter Med in 1970 to NATO’s 1971 operation Royal Knight in the North Atlantic, and we were flag for STANAVFORLANT in 71 as well. As a Radarman/OS I was tactically aware of our capabilities and weaknesses, and I believed then that we put to much emphasis on carrier air wings for offensive. “Many” times we would steam independently, or with a few other destroyers, and would happen upon our Soviet destroyer counterparts. We were outgunned then, and nothing has changed except now we depend on the Harpoon, NSM and Tomahawk subsonic anti shipping missiles which are outdated and slow. Why are we still having the same conversation on Naval offensive capabilities we had almost 50 years ago, and why is it that the Chinese can build a world class Navy in under 30 years while America still cannot field a shipped launched hypersonic anti shipping missile? My guess is that the profit of Boeing and Raytheon trump strategic necessity…

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